Honey for the dead?

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Honey for the dead?

Postby Tiberius Dionysius Draco on Fri Oct 13, 2006 12:11 am

Salvete Romani,

I came across an interesting article today depicting the find of a Roman burial ground. One paragraph in particular piqued my curiosity though, allow me to quote it:

Also unearthed were terracotta tubes inserted into graves through which mourning families would pour honey to nourish the dead.

I've never heard about such a practice before in any culture, let alone Roman burial rites. Does anybody have more information on the subject? I am rather intrigued by it and would love to know more about it.

Oh, and here's a link to the article: Wealthy lay with the poor in Roman burial ground.

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Postby Primus Aurelius Timavus on Fri Oct 13, 2006 5:01 pm

I did a quick Google search on the practice and the only relevant hits were tied in with this particular discovery. Some of the articles did, however, mention that other foods and drinks besides honey, milk for example, could also be provided to the dead through the tubes.
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Postby Horatius Piscinus on Sun Oct 15, 2006 4:03 am


Such tubes have been discoved with other Roman tombs as well. Libations of wine or milk, and food could be passed through these. One was expected to visit the tombs of his or her ancestors to share a meal at least once a year. Arrangements for more frequent visits were made, where certain months were designated to provide the dead with meals. IIRC three to five months out of the year. More respectful was once a month. One to three times a month the tombs were visited to place candles at them. Not all tombs had such pipes, of course, but those who desired to arrange for their receiving meals trough the year sometimes arranged for these.

As for the honey, the offerings typically presented to the Manes were water for washing, flour, cakes drizzled with honey, libations of milk or milk mixed with honey, honey on the side sometimes, salt, and olive oil. Wine was used as a libation for relatives (i.e. Lares) on special occassions, although see below. Fruit, more often than vegetables, might be offered. Roasted meat might be offered to Lares.

When a person died, the family was considered impure until they offered a pig to the Manes after a number of days. IIRC it was nine days after the death. This sacrifice was made to ensure that the Manes accepted the deceased. A sacrificial animal, or the blood of a chicken, might be offered to one's Lares. However, offering blood to the dead carried with it the notion of enlivening the bones of the dead, and thus was associated with necromancy. One could call upon one's ancestors for advice, and so it might be done, but still with some idea of it being related to what the Romans regarded as disrepectful under other circumstances. Wine could be considered a substituted for blood. Thus there was a prohibition, said to have gone back to Numa, on pouring wine on the bones of the dead for this reason - enlivening them, disturbing them from their rest, generally thought for no good reason. But of course Romans did do such things - no point outlawing what people weren't doing - and in some rare occasions we find mention of the practice on defixiones, or otherwise in literature.

In older sources the assumption was that these pipes that led into Roman tombs were used to pour libations of wine. But, all things considered, honey, or more likely milk mixed with honey, I think was the intended use. Milk mixed with honey was a drink offered to Ceres and to Proserpina, and thus may have been the more appropriate drink to offer to the dead as well.

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